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Full text of "The story of a famous book : an account of Dr. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography"

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Stokt of a Famous Book; 



DE. BENJAMIN FKANKLIN'S AUTOBIOGEAPHT. 



SAMUEL A. GEEEN, M.D. 



BOSTON: 

FOR PEIVATE DISTRIBUTION. 

I87I. 



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The following article originally appeared in the 
"Atlantic Monthly" for February of this year, under 
the title of " The Story of a Famous Book." A small 
edition is now reprinted, with the consent of the pub- 
lishers of that magazine, for a few friends of the 
Writer. 

1871. 



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THE STOEY OF A FAMOUS BOOK. 



It is now eighty years since the death of Dr. Franklin, and 
during this time his Autobiography has been more extensively 
i-ead in this country than any other historical work. It was, 
perhaps, the earliest American book that acquired and sustained 
a great popularity. Other books may have had a greater local 
or temporary success, hut to this one alone belonged a general 
and permanent reputation. There have been written many 
Lives of Washington, but none of them is to be compared in 
style and interest with the charming production of the great 
philosopher. Its history as a book has been so eventful, that it 
may be of sufficient interest to give some of its bibliographical 
details. The narrative was written at different times and places, 
and Pranklin himself has given the circumstances under which 
he prepared it. 

The first part, coming down to his marriage, in 1730, was 
written at Twyford, England, in 1771. while he was visiting 
the family of Dr. Jonathan Sheple^, the Bishop of St. Asaph, 
with whom he was on terms of dose intimacy ind friendship. 
Franklin, as it might be expected fiom hii mquiiing mind, took 
a deep interest in the genealogy of his famil}, and while in 
England made a journey with his son foi the puipose of finding 
out the history of his ancestors. The result of this trip is 
given in this portion of the memoirs of his life. The room in 



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which it was wi-ittcn was afterwards known as "Dr. Franklin's 
room," Tho sketch was began for the gratification of his own 
family, and intended for them alone, but afterwards it took a 
wider scope, and was evidently meant for publication. It was 
not until 1784 that he resumed work upon it, and in the mean 
time it had been shown to some of his friends. Three of them 
in particular — Benjamin Vaughan, Abel James, and M. Le 
Veillard — made sti-ong appeals to him to go on with it. Mr. 
Vaoghan's letter urging him to do so is dated January 31, 
1783, and had considerable influence on his tatting up again the 
story of his life, which he did the next year. 

The second part of his memoirs, written while he was living 
at Fassy, near Paris, ia short, and made up mainly of his ideas 
on the philosophy of life, rather than the recital of events. 
When Franklin began the second part at Fassy, he says that he 
did not have with him what had already been written. It 
might have been left at his home in Philadelphia after hie 
return from England in 1775. This supposition seems plausi- 
ble, for he would not have mentioned the fact if the manusci-ipt 
had been lent temporarily to some friend or neighbor at Fassy. 

The third part was begun in August, 1788, while Franklin 
was at home in Fhiladeiphia, and is brought down to 1757, 
This portion ends the Autobiography, as it is always printed, 
except in the edition of the Hon. John Bigelow, which we shall 
have occasion to notice before the close of this article. Franklin 
writes to Mr. Vaughan ; " To shorten the work, as well as for 
other reasons, I omit all facts and transactions that may not have 
■ a tendency to benefit the young reader, by showing him, from 
my example, and my success in emerging from poverty and 
acquiring some degree of wealth, power, and reputation, the 
advantages of certain modes of conduct which I observed, and 
of avoiding the errors which were prejudicial to me." 

At the end of Mr. Eigelow's edition is a fourth part, consist- 
ing of a few pages, written in 1789, and not to be found else- 
where in English. These are rather of a political character, 
and bring the memoirs down a year later, when they close. It 



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was Franklin's intention, as may be' inferred from his letters, to 
continue them further, and perhaps to the end of his life ; but 
during his last few years he suifered acutely, and much of the 
time was hardly in a condition to write for recreation or pleas- 
ure, to say nothing of his preoccupation with the public duties 
which pressed heavily upon him. 

Immediately after Dr. Franklin's death, in 1790, the first 
portion of the memoirs was published in French, at Paris. It 
is a singular fact that this work, which was destined to have so 
great a popularity, should first see the light in a foreign land 
and in a foreign tongue. It has never been satisfactorily ex- 
plained how or why this was so. It is not even certainly known 
who made the translation from the English into the French. It 
has been suggested that the translation might have been made 
from the copy which Franklin promised Mr. Vaughan, in a 
letter dated June 3, 1789. He there says that his grandson 
is copying the memoirs for his old friend. If this copy was sent, 
as is probable, although its existence is now unknown, it should 
have contained the whole memoirs, and the Fi'ench version 
would have been full and complete. It has been said that M. 
Le Veillard was the translator, but he distinctly denies the 
statement, and furthermore declares that he is utterly ignorant 
of the manner in which the translator procured the copy. It is 
known that M. Le Veillard's copy contained the whole Auto- 
biography, which makes it almost certain by circumstantial 
evidence that this was not the one from which the translation 
was made. According to the " Nouvelle Biographic Gt^n^rale " 
(Paris, 1858), it was translated by Dr. Jaques Gibeliu, who is 
spoken of in this dictionary as " a physician, naturalist, and 
French translator." He was an experienced ti^anslator of Eng- 
lish, and moreover it is said that he had had the original ' manu- 
script in his possession. If this he true, it is veiy probable that 
he was the person who made it, and he may have \ised a copy 
vvhich was obtained surreptitiously, although we have no knowl- 
edge of such a one. At any rate, a copy might easily have been 
made at anytime between 1771, when the first part was written. 



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and 1784, when the second part was began, for we know that 
the manuscript had been shown to different persona, and some 
of Franklin's friends had read it. The translator, whoever he 
was, states in the Preface that he had a copy of the original 
manuscript in his possession, though he should not give the 
details — of no importance to his readers — how it came into 
his hands. This statement would rather imply either a slight 
irregularity in the manner of his obtaining it, which he did not 
wish to make known, or a complication of circumstances which 
it might not be easy to explain to his readers. He furthermore 
states that the portion in his possession only comprises the first 
part of Franklin's life, and this is all that was printed. The 
supposition seems fair that he made a copy, probably unknown 
to Franklin or perhaps forgotten by him. A note is added to 
the Preface of this French edition, requesting those who would 
like to read the Life of Franklin in English to send tlieir names 
to the publisher, and that it would be put to press as soon as 
four hundred subscribers should be obtained. It ia probable 
that this number was never secured, as the edition was never 
printed. 

In 1793, two years after its publication in Paris, two separate 
and distinct translations of it were published in London, — the 
one by the Messrs. Bobinson, and the other by Mr. J. Parsons. 
It seems a little strange that this should have been -so, particu- 
larly as they appeared from the press about the same time. 
Perhaps a rivalry between two publishing firms, as sometimes 
happens in our days, was at the bottom of it. Probably the 
Pobinsons' edition appeai'ed first. Both were noticed in the 
" Monthly Review " for 1794 (Vol. XIII. p. 304). ^Ye ai-e 
unable to give the names of the translators. The Robinsons' 
edition was edited with more care and is a better ti-anslation 
than the other. There is some slight reason for supposing that 
the editor had access to the original manuscript, possibly the 
one lent to Mr. Vaughan ; though if this were so, it Avould be 
difficult to explain why he did not print the original draft, and 
the whole of it. Possibly the owner would not allow it. For 



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instance, in the French version Franklin states that he sailed 

from Graveaend on the day of July, 1726, and arrived in 

Philadelphia on the day of October following. These 

blanks are correctly filled up in the edition of the Robinsons, 
with dates that agree with those in the original manuscript, 
while in Pai'sons's edition they are left unfilled. From this it 
would seem not improbable that the translator of the former 
had seen an original copy. 

A few slight inaccuracies are also corrected, such as Sooper's 
Creek for Cooper's Creek, near Philadelphia, where Franklin 
passed a night with his companions on his first visit to the city. 
The ti-anslator of Parsons's edition speaks of a " school of nata- 
tion," which is an expression that an Anglo-Saxon would hardly 
use. lie also makes a singular blunder in calling one of the 
ballads that Franklin wrote in his boyhood the " Tragedy of 
Pharaoh." None would recognize under this title the little 
song which was known as " The Lighthouse Tragedy." The 
explanation of this droll mistake is found in the fact that the 
word for " lighthouse " used in the French copy was Phare. 

The Robinsons' edition has been republished many times in 
this country and in England, and was the only one in either 
country, till Franklin's grandson, William Temple Frankhn, 
published his grandfather's Works in London, the second volume 
in 1817, the 6rst and third volumes hi 1818. (The Life ap- 
peared in the first volume.) Even since 1818 the Robinsons' 
translation has passed through many editions, and has often 
been mistaken for the genuine Autobiography, though it was in 
a great measure superseded by the grandson's copy, which had 
the apparent stamp of authority. 

It is, in fact, an English translation from a French translation 
of the original English. It has never to our knowledge fallen 
to the lot of any book to pass through such a series of changes 
as happened to this ; and yet, with the drawback of these 
changes, it has been as charming as a novel to readers of all 
ages. Besides its fascinafion, it is fjiJXof J_h^tjBound sense and 
practical wisdom which, were so characteristic of its author. 



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u 

called the fourth portion of the Autobiography, which appears 
in English in Mr. Bigelow's edition only. The fifth and last 
is the version of M. Laboulaye, which appeared in 1866, and 
followed Mr. Sparks's edition. These five editions were all 
published in Paris. 

M. Laboulaye speaks of still another that was printed in 
Paris in 1841, which was "a now translation from the last 
edition published in New York." Wc have never seen this 
edition. 

Those who have not read the Autobiography since their 
childhood we should advise to read it anew. It will be found 
to have charms that few hooks possess, besides giving an insight 
into the iniluences that shaped Franklin's character, and showing 
the motives that guided him through life. The book has passed 
through many editions among all civilized nations, and the 
demand for it still continues. 



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